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FBI questions Tampa official

An FBI agent last week interviewed a city official who awarded government contracts to Ryan Construction, the company that built a South Tampa luxury home for former city housing chief Steve LaBrake.

The agent spoke to construction supervisor Kim Norquist a few days after the St. Petersburg Times reported on his role overseeing contracts with Ryan Construction.

FBI agents have dropped by city offices unannounced several times in the last month to interview officials, economic development administrator Mark Huey said Monday.

"It is part of their ongoing investigation, which staff is cooperating with fully," he said.

Housing chief Bob Harrell said he did not know the focus of the investigation.

"They ask questions," Harrell said. "They don't talk much."

Federal authorities began investigating the department in 2001 after reporters discovered that Ryan Construction had built a luxury home for LaBrake and his then-girlfriend, Lynne McCarter, an employee in LaBrake's department.

Investigators were examining whether LaBrake used his city position to steer business to Ryan Construction in return for a sweetheart deal on the house. They also reviewed LaBrake's dealings with the nonprofit Tampa-Hillsborough Acton Plan, which got thousands of dollars under LaBrake for affordable housing projects.

LaBrake has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged. He said Monday he would like to tell Mayor Pam Iorio his side of the story in person.

"Every time they have a problem, it's LaBrake did it," said LaBrake, who left the office during former Mayor Dick Greco's administration. "If they want to lay out what happened and debate it, bring it on."

Norquist worked in LaBrake's department, and as part of his job he oversaw bids that contractors made for city work.

In May, Norquist oversaw bids from Ryan Construction and a company called Macale Builders for repair work on a city home. The bid appeared to be competitive, coming from two separate businesses.

On June 20, the new mayor told a federal housing auditor that the city would not be doing business with Ryan Construction anymore. Iorio was upset Ryan had built a city-backed house on the wrong lot.

The next business day, housing officials suspended Ryan from performing work for the city. Norquist also informed Macale Builders it could not bid on city work, either.

In a letter, Norquist wrote that city officials saw a "conflict of interest" between Macale Builders and Ryan Construction.

That's because Chris Schnitzler, vice president of Ryan Construction and grandson of Dean Ryan, is also the treasurer of Macale Builders. Macale Builders is also using Schnitzler's contractor's license to operate.

City officials said they originally allowed the two companies to compete against each other because they weren't sure that Schnitzler still worked with Ryan Construction.

But Jeff Bessey, president of Macale Builders, said he told Norquist in March that Schnitzler had a role in both companies.

"They knew this from the get-go," Bessey said Monday. "When we first went to do business with the city of Tampa, we pretty much laid it on the line." Bessey said he told Norquist that the company was relying on Schnitzler's contracting license.

"At the beginning of the whole thing, we wanted to make sure there was not a conflict with this," Bessey said. "I wanted to be legitimate. We wanted to be clear."

Bessey said Norquist told him the arrangement was proper. "His words were: "I don't see a problem with that,' " Bessey said.

Norquist did not return a calls for comment.

Iorio learned about the FBI's visit from a reporter Monday night before taping the Mayor's Hour, a cable show on the city's cable station.

In the future, Iorio said she expected staff to inform her about FBI investigations.

"I will have to talk to staff," she said.

_ Times staff writer David Karp can be reached at 226-3376 or karpsptimes.com.

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